Techno Grows Up


When in late 2000 Nick Hornby wrote that Radiohead’s Kid A was a record fit only for teenagers—because adults don’t have time to sit in our bedrooms trying “to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics”—you had to wonder: What cranky record clerk fed him that line? After all, teen pop was then in rocket-like ascendance, Britney and her ilk reshaping the market in the image of TRL‘s learner’s-permit set. In Hornby’s formulation, time-rich teenagers were the real intended audience for Thom Yorke’s dismayed rambling and Jonny Greenwood’s Ondes Martenot squeals. We grown-ups, our patience shot after long days pushing paper or changing diapers, are fit only for jangle and bubblegum, hook and chorus.

Like so many counterintuitive gestures, perhaps his argument contained a hint of genius. As if proof that the original ravers are getting old, a curious change has come over electronic music: It’s gone pop. I don’t mean Moby or the Chemical Brothers, who for the majority of their careers have been more pop stars than the faceless techno wonks that critics so desperately wanted them to be. No, all manner of underground electronic musicians are taking a kinder, gentler approach—one that has less to do with smiley-faced E than the easygoing pleasures of verse/verse/chorus.

Just look at Swayzak’s Dirty Dancing, in which the minimalist British tech-house duo of James Taylor and David Brown has masticated and fermented its typical boom-chik polka trot into a particularly high-test new wave distillation. There are a few traditional dancefloor tracks here: “The Punk Era” is constructed of little more than a thumping house kick and the kind of dubby wash that’s graced a thousand such releases. But if Swayzak’s inclusion alongside the likes of Fischerspooner on this year’s Ministry of Sound comp This Is Tech-Pop suggests a new zeitgeist swing, tracks like “In the Car Crash” or “I Dance Alone,” featuring electro(clash) stars Carl Finlow and Nicola Kuperus of Adult.—arpeggios churning, vocals thrown brazenly up front—confirm a new radio-readiness on the part of techno’s former anti-assimilationists. Despite the utter banality of the lyrics, a sort of parody on a parody that makes the concept of pastiche look positively sincere, the song’s J.G. Ballard-meets-Gary Numan asexual purr achieves the autoerotic closed circuit at which the best electronic music has always aimed. The same goes for “Buffalo Seven,” featuring Berlin’s operatic Kotai. While it’s tempting to write it off as but one more retro paste-up, Swayzak’s uncanny sense of texture, timbre, and space justifies an approach that otherwise seems like a drift toward Alzheimer’s.

Luke Slater’s third full-length under his own name shows signs of a more addled adulthood. He may have come up as a techno purist, but on Alright on Top, he’s joined forces with Ricky Barrow (of early-’90s pop-techno group the Aloof) to create an album of pure pop songcraft and retro affect. Every aspect seems recycled, from the vocoders to the synth pads—a rounded, queasy buzz like the presets on old Sequential Circuits synthesizers—to the octave-toggling arpeggios (Power, Corruption & Lies-era New Order). At the same time, Alright on Top‘s variety can be just as disconcerting. Depeche Mode’s early records worked the way they did because new wave’s stilted dialect was the only available option; Alright is like a flea market vendor pairing obsolete gadgets with mismatched AC adapters. While the sweetly chiming “Only You” sounds (once again) like a New Order outtake—though Barrow’s sexy growl is very much his own—it’s schized up with Squarepushery glitch-breaks and overeager scratching. Likewise, “Searchin’ for a Dream” is a bizarre amalgam of nu-metal, new wave, and breakbeat techno: a fine song on its own, but something of a rude awakening from the earlier tracks’ teenage daydream. In fact it’s the contemporary touches—the trance pulse of “Take Me Round Again,” the brassy needling of “Nothing at All”—that feel out of place on an album that otherwise takes heart in the certainty that “we’ve been here once before.”

Like so much else, we can blame this revisionism on the Germans. A few years back, after churning out version upon version of the same sturm-und-thump minimalism, labels like Cologne’s Kompakt and Frankfurt’s Klang began tossing drier sheets made out of ’80s iron-ons into their laundromat dub. The Berlin producer Schneider TM revealed his saccharine sympathies on his 2000 cover of the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” turning Morrissey’s gloomy confessional into the equivalent of a digitized tombstone rubbing. His new Zoomer performs the same pixilated sandpapering on sunny-day chord changes cribbed from the Byrds and the Beach Boys. At times it’s a bit like a post-techno Jesus and Mary Chain, burying tambourine rattle and two-chord bangers beneath an avalanche of clicks and static. Singles like “Frogtoise” and “Abyss” are straight-up Tootsie Pop: After enough licks to the glazed candy shell, the sweet, chocolaty core comes oozing out. Nothing, however, is straightforward: Post-rave pop, after all, is forever mutated by the years of subwoofers and tinnitus, and so in the hands of Schneider TM, even a simple chorus of “oooo” sounds ecstatically synthetic. But then again there are those lyrics: “Cut a frog in half”? No, I don’t get it either. Must be a bone he’s throwing to the kids. After all, with music that goes down this easy, you’ve gotta give ’em something to puzzle over.